The perfect horror monster? Sigmund Freud would’ve had a blast with that concept. Joseph Campbell would’ve just thrown some random book of mythology at your head. Jean-Paul Sartre had the quote, “Hell is other people.” Perhaps, if anything, the truly monstrous is relative and personalized, unique to the individual.
But, hey…monsters are cool! From Lovecraft’s Cthulhu chomping on your sanity to DC Comic’s Doomsday leveling a city for giggles, we get a kick out of them. And if we should attempt to objectively describe ten characteristics of the perfect horror monster, well, that’s just fun. However, we may need to dig deeper than sharpened claws and alien origins.
10 tips for the perfect horror monster
Something Recognizable. No one’s imagination springs anew from a vacuum, and even if it did, nobody else would understand what you were talking about if you tried to describe the creepy stuff in your head. As much as Howard Philip spoke of things “unknown and eldritch,” he brought up tentacles a lot, too. Readers understood tentacles, and knew they were gross. A great deal of Christian symbolism relies heavily on images of bats and goats when detailing the Devil. Why? Because humans can more easily conceive of animal parts than a living darkness that wants to torment their souls for eternity.
Something Perverted. No, not in a sexual way. I’m talking about taking something familiar and comfortable, then twisting it into horrible new proportions. This is why toys, pets, grandmas, doctors and anything we usually perceive as innocent or benevolent is instantly rendered terrifying and becomes the perfect horror monster when revealed in a distorted manner. You’ve recognized it, but now it’s been transformed into an incorrect version of itself. Hello, Pennywise!
Something Imminent. Whatever threat or danger presented by our monster, something must somehow be displayed as impending. Here we get our blood-dripping fangs, our cybernetically implanted laser guns, and our crackling beams of dark magic. We need something that can cause immediate harm, and therefor, immediate fear. Any demon-possessed maniac swinging a chainsaw at you is a good example of this.
Something Subdued. While the giant scorpion tail or exoskeleton made out of razor blades is freakin’ horrific, we need more for our perfect monster. It needs a presence, an aura of sheer malevolence that we feel in our guts. Perhaps a certain sound it makes, or the way it moves, something about it affects us on a deeper level. This is the malignancy that lingers and haunts us later. We’re now in Hannibal Lector territory, but with actual shark teeth.
Something Revealed. The horror lurking in the shadows is always disturbing, but sometimes knowing can be worse. A glimmer of knowledge, a snippet of information, that’s all we get, but it’s enough to know we’re screwed. Have we discovered its origin, its destination, its reason for eating everyone’s faces? That little puzzle box you’ve been trying to open just got a whole lot more ominous.
Something Reserved. It needs intellect, or purpose beyond being a mindless killing machine. Unreasoning zombies are bad, yes, but you can take out one with a shovel to the skull. This thing had a hidden agenda, secret abilities and maybe even disposable minions. Maybe we don’t really know it’s origin, just what it wants us to think. This is a singular monstrosity hellbent on something we can’t even fathom, deceptions behind the lies, and chances are we’ll never know everything.
Something Abstracted. In some manner, this perfect horror monster must transcend our rational mind. Whether from a post-apocalyptic future, the pits of hell, or the planet Yuggoth, it has to have some ties to a concept that forces us to suspend belief. This is an atrocity incarnate, so logic isn’t really going to apply here. Some part of it will factor outside the realm of reason, a large part of why it’s so terrifying. Dracula does not care if his snack believes in him or not.
Something Actualized. Dropping back into the real world, there has to be some aspect of it that we comprehend as well. Remember the giant scorpion tail? Kind of like that, but we’re more into the essence of our monster now as opposed to the appearance. Should we give it a name, or has it named itself? We understand names, and we even can conceive of the future, hell, and other planets. Nyarlathotep was bad as The Crawling Chaos, but somehow it sucks way more when it’s smiling at you from across the coffee shop.
Something Conscious. At the end of the day, our perfect monster must somehow reflect the human experience. We have to see some identifiable part of ourselves in it, and feel that connection on a cognitive level. There has to be something that makes us say, “This monster represents this,” or “Is a manifestation of that.” Whether these allegations are true or not is irrelevant, because some part of us will feel as if we’ve conquered it… right up until it tears our limbs out.
Something Unconscious. Finally, we must empathize with this horror monster on a more emotional level. It has to speak to us in some deep, almost primitive fashion. We acknowledge it is an avatar of nightmares, a walking obscenity, and accept this fact. While we may not agree with this abomination’s existence, we agree that it does indeed exist. The monster buried inside all of us finds comfort in its more obvious abhorrent nature, but we will never voice this.
So there you go, ten characteristics of the perfect horror monster. A bit philosophical overall, but deconstructed to more base creative elements. Needless to say, if anything remotely this nasty decided to stroll down the road, I’d sob like a little kid. Regardless, I’d still love to see it through my tears those last few moments before all the screaming and the bleeding ensued.
BRIAN FATAH STEELE, a member of the indie author co-op Dark Red Press, describes the majority of his work as “Epic Horror with lots of Explosions.” Along with multiple books, his articles and stories have appeared in various e-magazines and online journals. Steele lives in Ohio with a few cats that are probably plotting his doom. Surviving on a diet primarily of coffee and cigarettes, he occasionally dabbles in Visual Arts and Music Production. He still hopes to one day become a Super Villain.